Thumb Sucking: An Overview

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By David Hutto

All people are born with a natural sucking instinct, so that a newborn when placed to the mother’s breast is able to feed from birth. In addition to the pleasure and satiation of eating, breastfeeding can provide comfort and positive feelings from being held and caressed, as well as from the warmth and touch of the mother’s body.

Sucking may therefore become associated with a range of positive feelings, but there is no instinct to suck the thumb. Instead, the pleasure and comfort associated with sucking are often transferred to the thumb, or sometimes to the fingers. This is learned behavior, and because it does not involve feeding, it is sometimes called non-nutritive sucking.

Thumb sucking can also be an expression of a strong emotional impulse, one of the reasons it can be so hard to break the habit. Most people will suck their thumb before the age of two, and a young child will learn to suck their thumb when bored or distressed, trying to recreate the pleasure previously associated with sucking. We even recognize how common it is for sucking to provide comfort as we routinely give babies pacifiers (the word “ pacifier” literally means “to make peaceful”).

Most people suck their thumb when very young, especially before the age of two, but most also outgrow it while still young. If the habit continues beyond four or five years old, it can cause several problems. The most common complications are dental, but in addition a child may be more exposed to infections from putting the thumb in the mouth, or at an older age they may experience ridicule from their peers.

Dental problems can occur because the sucking pressure applied to the thumb when held between the teeth can distort the alignment of the teeth. Improper alignment is called malocclusion, and there are various kinds, but the most common from thumb sucking is when the teeth protrude forward. In other cases the sucking can negatively affect the shape of the roof of the mouth.

If a child simply holds the thumb in the mouth, there is less chance of damage than from a child who actively sucks on the thumb, though extended thumb sucking lasting for years is still a potential danger for harming the teeth. Generally, the potential for problems with the teeth is more of a concern only when the permanent teeth begin to come in, but in some cases a child with aggressive sucking may damage the baby teeth as well.

Since thumb sucking is normal and harmless for infants, but may become a problem in older children, parents can be uncertain whether a problem exists and whether they should intervene. The question is complicated as there is no exact agreement on when children should stop thumb sucking on their own. Some sources say a child will naturally stop between 2 and 4, others by the age of 5, and others between 3 and 6.

Some reasons for parents to become concerned over thumb sucking are when the habit lasts beyond four or five years old, if there are any noticeable dental problems, or if social problems begin to occur, such as the child encountering ridicule.

When parents decide to intervene to stop thumb sucking, they should remember that all habits can be hard to change, especially those that provide comfort or pleasure, and thumb sucking is no exception. The parents should also bear in mind that ridicule and nagging not only may not work, but they can be harmful psychologically. In some cases a child may even want to stop but be unable to.

Other types of negative reinforcement should also be avoided, including putting unpleasant substances on the thumb, such as vinegar or hot substances. A more useful approach is to reward positive behavior when the child is not sucking their thumb. It may also be useful to try to understand what triggers the thumb sucking behavior, such as stress or anxiety, and address those problems.

When more intrusive forms of intervention are needed, some parents have even gone as far as trying hypnotism to break the habit (Grayson 2012).  If the problem is severe enough and nothing else seems to be working, a mechanical device that interferes with sucking has been shown to help (Madiraju & Harika 2011). Devices that fit onto the hand will alter or prevent the pleasure the child receives from thumb sucking, and with time the thumb sucking habit can be abolished.

The most unique and recommended way to break the habit is to remove the pleasure that promotes it. TGuards have been shown to be over 90% effective in stopping the habit, and work by breaking the suction which creates the pleasure. The best remedy for thumb sucking is one that is not painful, does not cause any discomfort, and allows your child to continue with their daily activities unimpeded. Above all, it should work, and work fast. TGuards have been shown to be effective in all of these areas.


 American Dental Association. (2013). Thumbsucking. Retrieved from

 Grayson, D. N. (2012). Hypnotic intervention in a 7-year-old thumbsucker: a case study. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 54, 195–201.

 Madiraju, G. S., & Harika, L. (2011). Effectiveness of appliance therapy in reducing overjet and open bite associated with thumb sucking habit. Minerva Stomatologica, 60, 333–338.

 Mayo Clinic. (2012, Aug. 10). Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit. Retrieved from

 WebMD. (2011, Dec. 20). Children’s Health: Thumb Sucking Topic Overview. Retrieved from